We often hear people in the publishing industry talk about backlist vs. frontlist. Today I want to talk about the value of the backlist in building an author’s career..
First a couple of definitions. The terms, backlist and frontlist came from the “olden days” when publishers relied on slick catalogs to sell books to bookstores. Remember those days before websites? Here’s an easy way to think about these:
- Frontlist refers to the books at the front of publishers’ catalogs– those books that are just releasing. The hot new books and important books are frontlist titles. These are the ones the sales team will feature at a trade show or during a visit to buyers.
- Backlist refers to the books that used to populate the front but now are relegated to the back of those same catalogs– the books that were from past seasons. Generally these books get little to no marketing dollars.
Before online bookstores it was near impossible for a reader to find books from years past. Stores simply did not have the shelf space to stock all the titles from an author– even a bestselling author. If you discovered a writer you liked and wanted to read his entire oeuvre, you would need to haunt used bookstores, libraries and yard sales. It was a daunting task. Now it’s easy, especially if you read ebooks.
When we’re talking about backlist we’re not talking about mass market books, like general market romances. Those are on the shelves for a specified span of time and then, if they don’t sell, the store tears off the cover, recycles the rest of the book and returns those covers to the publisher for full credit. Sometimes these can be found in used bookstores but by and large, finding a complete backlist from a favorite mass market author would be difficult, even in these days.
We’re talking about trade books. In the past, the author’s royalties came primarily from their newest frontlist book. It’s different now. Readers are finding a writer they love and backtracking–reading through that writer’s backlist– instead of trying another writer’s frontlist book. I find I’m doing that almost exclusively now that the writer’s whole list is available to me. For instance, for my recreational reading, I’m an avid Louise Penny fan. (Just read her new release this week— superb!) I anxiously await her newest book each September. When I first found her, I backtracked and read every book she’s written, in order. Since she writes stories with the same ensemble of characters a reader would miss so much in not seeing how the characters grow and develop. Because I read the ebook and listen to the audio at the same time, and since I just finished book number sixteen, I’ve spent about $400.00 on this author alone. (Yikes! I never should have added it up.) That probably amounts to a nice little pile of royalty dollars for the author from the combination of backlist and frontlist.
Here’s where backlist begins to make a real difference in an author’s career:
- When a novelist stays with the same main character for a long time and readers come to love that character. (Think: Sue Grafton and her 25 “alphabet” books featuring Kinsey Millhone. That’s some backlist.)
- When readers find an author they love, series or not. We have many Books & Such novelists who write standalone books but their backlist sales are vigorous because once the reader finds them, they can’t get enough.
- When a reader discovers a nonfiction author who is wise and wonderful, and that reader becomes an avid collector of his or her books, finding and devouring the entire backlist.
- When a reader finds an author who writes book after book on the same subject, a subject the reader is passionate about, he will make sure the entire backlist is on his shelf.
The good thing for trade book authors is that there really is no more “frontlist” and “backlist.” It used to be that your book was on the bookstore shelves while it was new and then it was consigned to oblivion. Now– with unlimited virtual bookshelf space– if a reader clicks on your name, all your books are usually available as ebooks, if not print books. This means the possibility of a steady flow of income for the writer.
So, as you plan your career, be diligent to keep writing, one book after another. You will be building up that whole list– front and back.
Question: How do you read? Scattershot? One author, no matter what he writes? Through an entire series from number one on, or from A – Z? (Or A – Y in the case of Sue Grafton.) Or do you stick with one subject from one author through many books?